The theme of media manipulation by power elites has exercised Australian playwright David Williamson mightily over the years. He recently completed two movie scripts. One, for Robert Altman, reveals World War I spy Mata Hari to be the hapless victim of military intelligence; the other, “Fake News,” for Dustin Hoffman, who plans to star in and produce the project, is a topical drama about PR-controlled news.
Williamson explored the tight relationship between press and politicians in “Sons of Cane” a decade ago. In his new play, “Sanctuary,” a top international journalist, Robert “Bob” King (Robert Grubb), has retired mysteriously at 48 to his opulent sanctuary on Queensland’s lush north coast. King was a Time magazine correspondent in Central America and Cambodia before anchoring the top national TV current affairs show.
But, having turned down a lucrative contract renewal to return home, he finds his hedonistic life disrupted by a radical young media graduate (played by actor Felix Williamson, the playwright’s stepson, to whom the work is dedicated).
The student has signed a book deal for a damaging thesis he is writing on King’s self-serving career. Their confrontation is claustrophobic, heavy on polemic and violent melodrama.
“Sanctuary” has its rough spots, and Act 1 needs pruning, but it is a bold switch by Williamson to a rawer style that recalls early work like “The Removalists.” Director Aubrey Mellor successfully channels the actors’ passion but fails to correct Williamson’s shaky articulation — an increasing problem with young actors — or Grubb’s tendency to declaim.
But the issues Williamson raises are significant in Australia, where two North Americans — U.S. citizen Rupert Murdoch and Canadian Conrad Black — dominate the metropolitan press.
As it turns out, hypocrisy and moral contortion are not exclusively King’s domain: the student’s radical high ground soon turns to quicksand. Everyone can be manipulated, according to Williamson. If that’s the truth, the case for an independent, diverse media must be overwhelming.